'Water Cops' Patrol L.A. For Violaters

California is in the midst of one of its worst droughts in decades. Residents of Los Angeles are banned from watering their lawns during the day and can only use sprinklers twice a week. To enforce the laws, the L.A. "Water Conservation Team" has taken to the street in Priuses to find water offending scofflaws.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now to the latest on our occasional series on Water In The West. California is in one of its worst draughts in decades, and Los Angeles has restricted how much water residents can use. There's also a force patrolling the streets and lawns looking for serial water wasters.

NPR's Ben Bergman went on a ride-along with what some are calling the L.A. water cops.

(Soundbite of music "Bad Boys")

INNER CIRCLE: Bad Boys, whatcha want, whatcha want, whatcha gonna do?

BEN BERGMAN: It's a typically sunny, dry day in L.A. and we've just closed the doors to our patrol car, a blue Toyota Prius. The driver is David Jones, one of 15 water conservation representatives from the Department of Water and Power. Working for the city for a quarter century, he hasn't missed a day.

Mr. DAVID JONES (Department of Water and Power, Los Angeles, California): Perfect attendance since the day I started.

BERGMAN: Never been sick?

Mr. JONES: Never been sick. I'm pretty proud of that.

BERGMAN: Jones' Prius has no siren or radio. He's armed with only a clipboard and pamphlets. His uniform, black pants and a yellow polo shirt.

Mr. JONES: What we're going to do is we're going to respond to the customer complaint that have come in via e-mail or telephone, and en route if we see any violators, we are going to stop and educate or issue a citation.

BERGMAN: Residents are banned from cleaning sidewalks with hoses. They can only water their lawns after 4:00 or before 9:00. Sprinklers are limited to Mondays and Thursdays, but only before 9:00 or after 4:00. Got it?

(Soundbite of sprinkler)

BERGMAN: Outside this apartment complex, the sprinklers are turned up so high water not only floods the lawn but covers much of the sidewalk.

Mr. JONES: For the citizens who have to come up and down the street here, they have to walk through this.

BERGMAN: Time to find the offender.

Mr. JONES: Good morning.

Unidentified Man #1: Good morning.

Mr. JONES: How you doing? My name is Mr. Jones, Department of Water and Power. The reason why I stopped here is because we did receive a complaint that your sprinklers are on during prohibited hours of the day. Were you aware of the times of the day?

Unidentified Man #1: Twice a week.

Mr. JONES: Yeah, twice a week for the sprinklers, yes, but it's…

Unidentified Man #1: Sprinklers twice a week.

Mr. JONES: Yeah, but the hours.

BERGMAN: Since it's the man's first offense, Jones lets him off with just a warning. If he finds him illegally watering again, there will be fines as high as $600 for repeated violations. For now, Jones tries a gentler touch.

Mr. JONES: Could you tell a friend or a relative and your neighbors about the ordinance that we have, because we're actually - we're really running out of water in Los Angeles.

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah.

BERGMAN: A short time later, Jones responds to another complaint. He approaches a gardener who abruptly puts down his hose after seeing the badge dangling from Jones' neck.

Mr. JONES: How you doing?

Unidentified Man #2: All right.

Mr. JONES: Okay. I guess you know why I stopped.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BERGMAN: Since the gardener is just a worker, Jones knocks on the door of the house to talk to the owner.

Mr. JONES: Hello, how you doing?

Unidentified Woman: Okay.

Mr. JONES: The reason why I stopped is that I noticed that your gardener is watering, and he's watering during prohibited hours.

Unidentified Woman: I know. You can see my water bill. I don't use that much water.

Mr. JONES: Oh, is that right?

Unidentified Woman: Really, you can look at it and see. I don't use…

Mr. JONES: Oh yeah, I would be able to pull it up, but actually that's not part of my job.

Unidentified Woman: I only pay less than $15 for my water and here everybody else has hundreds of dollars.

Mr. JONES: Yeah, that's excellent.

Unidentified Woman: I really try not to use it.

Mr. JONES: Yeah.

Unidentified Woman: You know, he's just helping me with the watering because everything is getting yellow.

BERGMAN: Jones says he loves his job even though the people he encounters often dread a visit from him. The water conservation program certainly isn't without its critics.

Ms. DIANA CHAPMAN(ph) (Community Activist): It's a soggy mess to me. I think it's a stupid program. It makes me angry just to think about it.

BERGMAN: Diana Chapman is a community activist. She says she's all for conservation, but from her point of view the city is encouraging citizens to rat out their neighbors.

Ms. CHAPMAN: I don't want to be telling on my neighbors. I want to keep them as neighbors and have them as friends. I don't want to be going, hey, the city of L.A. is saying you're using too much water.

BERGMAN: For the city's response, we went straight to the top of the imposing water and power headquarters downtown to meet with CEO David Nahai.

Mr. DAVID NAHAI (CEO, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power): Most people report the wasteful practices because they genuinely believe that waste is occurring. This isn't somebody snitching as such. It's really Angelinos banding together to deal with a problem that confronts all of us.

BERGMAN: Nahai says he hopes to avoid a total ban on watering lawns with the current restrictions. And before we leave his office, he's kind enough to offer some refreshment.

Mr. NAHAI: Would you like some water? We do have some, you know?

BERGMAN: Unfortunately, not nearly enough.

Ben Bergman, NPR News, Los Angeles.

MONTAGNE: And this is NPR News.

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